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Virgin Care’s increasing influence in the NHS shouldn’t have been a surprise

By Kane Shaw, Press and Media Officer 

A recent report by the Guardian - drawing on the work of the NHS Support Federation -  has been making waves, after it revealed Richard Branson’s Virgin Care has scooped up to £2bn worth of public contracts, in the NHS, over the last few years.

The report states the company managed to obtain half of that amount in 2017 alone, and that it currently holds up to 400+ contracts. But, for those who have been campaigning to end the failed model of outsourcing in the NHS this isn’t surprising.

Virgin Care has been making increasing inroads into the NHS since 2010. In that time, it has acted as a shining example of why the purchaser-provider split needs to be abolished.

The company had previously allowed medically untrained receptionists to triage patients at an urgent care centre which was deemed to have led to the death of a patient.

While in 2016 the MP Paula Sheriff – who used to work in one of Virgin Care’s dermatology departments – alleged that the company was forcing patients to have follow up consultations in order to boost profits and thereby delaying possibly urgent referrals for serious conditions.

Other incidents have involved the company’s taking over of a GP service rated “outstanding” and then reducing its ranking to inadequate in the space of two years.

In short, Virgin Care has amply demonstrated that the logics underpinning the provision of healthcare for profit, and the provision of healthcare on the basis of need, are fundamentally antithetical.

The protestations of Nick Fox – a Virgin Group spokesman – who claimed in response to the report that Richard Branson won’t take a penny from Virgin Care in dividends. But, will instead reinvest that money back into frontline services, also rings hollow in light of the fact that the company sued six separate CCGs in Surrey after missing out on a contract.

Westminster is the problem

But focusing on the moral compass of those running companies like Virgin Care, Serco and Capita doesn’t take us far in understanding how they managed, and continue to manage, to amass such a large quantity of public money.

The answer is to be found in Westminster.

It’s no secret that when Margaret Thatcher was asked in an interview what her greatest political achievement was she replied, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

On the face of it this is a scandalous response. How could Tony Blair and New Labour, which managed at the height of their power to increase real terms NHS funding by 7-8% a year – the highest in the NHS’s 70-year history - share the same political compass with someone who sought to privatise it?

Such a question invites a detailed answer, one that can’t be given in the short confines of this blog, but, in short, the quick answer is simply that Thatcher won the ideological battle.

And we’re still living with the consequences of that today.

New Labour didn’t seek to privatise the NHS in the way that Thatcher dreamed of. But, their approach to the NHS - and the wider issue of the provision of public services - operated on the assumptions underpinning Thatcherism.

New Labour failed to abolish the internal market created by Thatcher. In many respects it worsened the situation. The Health and Social Care Act of 2012 - the largest top down reform of the NHS since its creation - was a result of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. But, it is often forgotten that a number of the measures contained in that act – such as forcing all NHS Trusts to become Foundation Trusts - was only possible on the basis of New Labour’s previous reforms.

It is this Act that has allowed Virgin Care, and other companies like it, to substantially increase their foothold in the NHS over recent years. Despite continued evidence that the purchaser-provider split is undermining the health service financially and in terms of its performance.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader represents a total break with Labour’s previous thinking on the NHS. This was made clear in Jonathan Ashworth’s recent announcement that the party would renationalise the NHS and abolish Health and Social Care Act.

This is a total break with the past 30 years of ‘commonsense’ neoliberal thought.

The past can’t be undone easily

But, there’s a catch. If the tabloids are to be believed – and that is a big ask considering the Express has recently been behind this story – then it would appear that some within the Parliamentary Labour Party are determined to form a break away party in the event of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour winning a general election. Thereby depriving Labour of a majority.

This opposition to Corbyn is based not upon the idea that he is unelectable - that myth was buried at the last General Election where Corbyn trumped Blair, Brown, Miliband and every other Labour leader since in 1945 on the popular vote - but on ideological differences.

The Conservatives are currently stuck in an ideological rut. They continue to promote outsourcing throughout the public sector and wider neoliberal policies despite growing evidence of their futility. However, it would appear that the same can now be said to be evident in regard to a certain wing of the Labour Party.

If a break-away party were to happen this would have an incredibly negative effect upon the NHS. It would prevent the abolition of the purchaser-provider split, and allow Virgin Care and other companies to continue bidding for contracts that the NHS is legally obliged to advertise to the private sector.

This would drive up the amount of money being diverted from frontline services to bureaucratic tendering processes. It would also encourage the continued cherry-picking of the private sector. And, in the context of Brexit, where the UK is increasingly looking likely to leave without a deal and therefore trade on WTO terms, it would become legally impossible to reverse privatisation once trade deals had been struck with other countries containing Investor State Dispute Settlements.

The growing privatisation of the NHS hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. Virgin Care are rather the symptom of a much deeper malady which shows no signs of going away just yet.


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